The Dean's Column: Building a Community of Scholars
When I arrived at Jefferson a decade ago, the concept of a Jefferson Humanities Forum was already percolating in my mind. I envisioned selecting an overarching topic for a given year, then bringing in speakers from diverse fields to view that topic from different perspectives.
This past April, dream became reality as we finally launched the forum. Having expanded the scope of our enterprise in the past year, with out-of-the-box mergers, it seemed only appropriate to explore, for our inaugural series, the theme of Fusion: Innovation Across Disciplines.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of fusion is “a merging of diverse, distinct, or separate elements into a unified whole.” See also: Jefferson.
Jefferson today is Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University—and that little plus sign carries a lot of weight and meaning. It represents not only the fusion of
two into one, but also an addition; each element of our new equation brings something new to the other, adding value to our students’ education and degrees, and resulting in a preeminent professional university that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
A plus sign is itself an intersection, a crossing of two lines, which quite elegantly captures what we are doing at Jefferson. Through our Medicine+ co-curriculum, we educate our students in cross-cutting disciplines alongside and complementary to their medical training. That’s medicine plus design, medicine plus data sciences, medicine
plus policy, medicine plus humanities. Each promotes a new way of thinking: design, computational, relational, and reflective thinking.
What are the benefits of this kind of fusion? For analysis of historical precedent, and consideration of its future significance, I refer you to Steven Johnson, the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, a mainstay on the reading list for the Student Leadership Forum—
a program I launched soon after coming to Jefferson.
From the get-go, Where Good Ideas Come From is required reading for each new
cohort of Student Leadership Forum students. By asking them to present punchy chapter summaries in the form of “three-minute elevator pitches,” I use this reading as a tool for cultivating their communication skills. I chose this book purposefully—in it, Johnson explores how ideas are shared and built upon over time, ultimately resulting in incredible inventions and technological marvels that wouldn’t have been possible without cross-
fertilization, collaboration. Leadership demands innovation. And the message? Innovation can be cultivated.
We were delighted to have Johnson as the very first speaker for our landmark launch
of the Jefferson Humanities Forum on April 27. He set the stage for the rest of the
day—which also featured presentations from artist Janet Echelman and author Sarah Lewis—and for our ongoing discussion in the coming year on fusion and innovation.
As Johnson walked us through the invention of modern conveniences such as computers, the internet, and vaccines, he pointed out the myth of the eureka moment. Most truly transformative ideas start as a “slow hunch” that develops over a long period of time—months, years, decades—before they finally crystallize. And there’s a certain amount of serendipity involved, moments and interactions that inspire and plant seeds of ideas that develop in unexpected, incredible, even world-changing ways.
At Jefferson we’re contriving an environment—engineering the “lucky breaks”—that brings together diverse people across disciplines. The fervor of activity already underway between our East Falls and Center City campuses is already validating this approach—
the generative power of interfaces.
Fusion is happening on a global scale as well through creative partnerships with leading institutions beyond Center City, beyond Philadelphia—to countries and regions where Jefferson is establishing global centers: India, Italy, Israel, Japan, Latin America—and yet others, such as Ireland and Finland.
In April we welcomed our first cohort of students from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Roma and Politecnico di Milano, rotating at Jefferson as part of our new Italian exchange program. And in June, we announced the establishment of the Jefferson Israel Center, an innovation hub for the University that will tap into that country’s remarkable innovation ecosystem through joint development with Israeli start-ups and collaborative ties with Israeli academic centers—including all of Israel’s medical schools, its world-class institutions in the design/textiles/architecture spaces, and other leading Israeli innovation centers, such as the one at Sheba Medical Center.
Collaboration across disciplines, across cultures, across oceans.
What we’re really about at Jefferson is creating and nurturing a community of scholars through local and global partnerships, and mind-expanding programs like the Jefferson Humanities Forum. As physicians, researchers, teachers, and students with busy schedules, it is still critical to carve out time for personal development, to invite in new and unexpected ideas, learn from others in wildly different professions, and seek expertise from outside our specialties—even outside medicine.
This is a lifelong pursuit; learning doesn’t end when you leave Jefferson. Whether you listen to podcasts, watch TED talks, read books, take online classes, or return to campus to attend seminars or symposiums, I urge all of our alumni to continue to study, to learn—to dream. Welcome serendipity into your life and your work. Life-altering, world-changing ideas can come from the most surprising places, and inspiration can strike when you least expect it.